In this article, FBIN talked with Drew Bentley, Senior Director of Business Strategy & Analytics on the club’s recent developments, the use of technology and analytics, and Wayne Rooney’s comeback with the club.
Briefly introduce yourself, and your current role at D.C. United.
My name is Drew Bentley. I lead and support the business strategy and analytics group here at D.C. United & Audi Field. Our team is responsible for revenue strategy, analytics, CRM, and ticket operations for D.C. United and all other Audi Field events, including American college football, domestic and international soccer programming, food and wine festivals, concerts, and more. We’re focused on bringing as many new types of events to the stadium as possible, to increase our visibility here within the region.
Currently, what would be the most important revenue stream at the club?
Ticketing and partnerships revenue have historically been top generators for most MLS clubs. Additionally, any in-stadium revenues like food and beverage and merchandise are also crucial to growing our business. One that will be relatively new to us (and our fellow MLS clubs) is the new league-wide TV deal with Apple starting in 2023. MLS has not had a consolidated television rights deal in the past, and each team has been free to pursue their own broadcast partnerships in local markets. Hence, a unified platform within Apple next year will allow us to deliver even more fantastic content, have all of our fans in one place, and enable the game to substantially grow in the US hand-in-hand with one of the largest, most influential brands (Apple) in the world.
How did the club cope with Covid-19 pandemic?
The pandemic certainly affected us similarly to every other professional sports organization, but at the same time it did present a few opportunities for our business. Since we weren’t spending time activating events, like we normally would have, we spent our time standardizing our processes and ensuring our analytics ecosystem was as optimized as possible. We had time to dive into our historical data in a more granular manner, which aided in our decision-making processes, as we prepared for our return to live events.
How are analytics & technology applied at the club? Which are your key focus areas?
We have a lot of different key focus areas,, but from an overarching perspective: with most major decisions we make, we want to ensure that there’s a semblance of data behind it, to help justify and measure the decision and outcome. We’re in the process of implementing this strategy across the entire organization, not just one specific department.
On the technology side of things, we utilize 100% mobile ticketing. We have been doing this since our stadium (Audi Field) opened in 2018 and have worked with our partners at Ticketmaster to use our venue to showcase the positive benefits of a fully mobile venue. From a fan-experience perspective, we implemented SafeTix, which sees rotating barcodes and NFC tickets, which help to expedite entry and reduce potential fraud. Essentially, your barcode will update every 15 seconds or you can add it to your Apple/Google Wallet and just need to tap your phone near the scanner, and you go in.
On the analytics side of things, we try to take a three-phased approach when looking at our analytical support for each department at our club. It starts with descriptive analytics, where we want to accurately tell the story of what has occurred. The second phase is to utilize a lot of our descriptive data to fuel our predictive models, or what likely will occur. Put simply, in these two phases, we can tell the story of what has happened and what’s likely to happen in the future, with our current set of circumstances. The third and final phase for us utilizes prescriptive analytics, where we combine our first two phases to engineer an outcome or answer the question of “what do we want to happen?” and “how do we structure our efforts to achieve those desired outcomes?” We’re working to integrate our efforts across our club and establish a solid foundation of accurate, real-time data so that we’re able to provide proactive strategy recommendations to grow our business and enhance our experience, holistically.
From a business perspective, what would you say is the unique selling point of D.C. United?
Each club has unique selling points or value propositions. It comes down to how well we tell our story. How are we connecting to our soccer fans here in the D.C. market? How are we also connecting to general sports fans? As you know, soccer is not the number one sport in the US, so how do we get general sports fans here locally to start getting into soccer for the first time? Or even the person who just wants something fun to do in the city on the weekend? How do we get them to come out and experience the venue for the first-time, then how do we get them to come back? So we have to tell a story that resonates with each of those core demographics and target markets, and use our data to ensure the right messages get to the right people.
So, I think we’ve got a unique mix of selling points for our club, but there are a few noticeable ones that come to mind. First, is our state-of-the-art venue – Audi Field. It’s a fantastic place to watch a match, with some of the best sightlines in the league. Next, is our new head coach, Wayne Rooney and the style of play he brings to the table. Overall, we’re working diligently to identify and enhance elements of our experience that will resonate with our fans and help us grow our club, and MLS as a whole.
How would the arrival of Wayne Rooney impact the club’s landscape, MLS and American soccer in general?
Wayne played and captained us here for two years (2018 and 2019), and he electrified the fan base and the D.C. sports community back then. So, as a coach, he’s already brought that same kind of winning energy and competitiveness to the team and our fan base. On the pitch, Wayne certainly brings his expertise from years of playing at the highest levels, and the team is really committed to his style of play.
He brings a level of visibility globally to MLS and D.C. United that excites us all. He knows what it takes to be successful in MLS and is committed to growing the game here in D.C., so it’s cool that he’s able to bring it full circle, from doing it as a player to now as our head coach.
What are the differences in running a soccer club in America compared to Europe or the rest of the world?
First, how we generate revenues has historically been a little different. The global soccer community has had league-wide television-rights deals for some time, whereas in MLS, each team has had its own deals in each respective market. So, we’re excited to see how that changes moving forward, with the league’s new TV deal with Apple.
Another interesting point is that in Europe, from what I understand, there’s not as much activity on the secondary ticketing market, where fans resell their tickets. That’s something really strong here in the U.S., where somebody will buy tickets, and then they can resell them on a few different platforms (i.e., Ticketmaster has a resale platform), so we have to be diligent in monitoring those markets.
Unlike in Europe, where soccer has traditionally been the number one sport in most countries, we have a lot of in-market competition here. Here in Washington, D.C., we have the Washington Wizards (NBA), the Washington Commanders (NFL), Washington Capitals (NHL), the Washington Nationals (MLB), as well as the Washington Spirit (NWSL) and Washington Mystics (WNBA) on the women’s side of things, among other entertainment offerings. D.C. is a global sports and entertainment hub, and we must compete with other sports and teams for valuable market share. Therefore, we must create a story that compels people to spend their time and money at Audi Field, supporting our mission in the community and the growth of our club. .
What are your next big projects at D.C. United?
We’ve got quite a few. First, during this off-season, we’re working on a data warehouse and CRM migration with our partners at KORE Software that will allow us to be more efficient and detailed in our approach to data-driven support for all of our business units.
Second, we’ve got some stadium enhancements on the way, such as new premium spaces, as we look to ensure we have the right offerings for all of our current and prospective fans. We want to make our stadium experience the best we can for the fans and supporters, so this off-season is a big opportunity for us.
Finally, we’ve been selected to host the 2023 MLS All-Star Game! It’s a great chance to have the entire league and many from the global soccer community here in the District. We’re excited to host everyone and bring a world-class event to our community here in D.C. and showcase the best that D.C. has to offer.